by Asti Hustvedt
Medical Specimens might be a better title for this book: the women Asti Hustvedt presents were all reduced to their symptoms by doctors eager to diagnose hysteria. The author's three subjects were the patients of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, whose work at the Salpetriere Hospital in Paris in the late 19th century earned him fame and fury. One woman, Augustine, suffered fits, heard voices and had hallucinations. But before doctors had even witnessed an attack, they announced she was a hysteric because of how she styled her hair. So they pricked and pinched her, and examined the mucous membranes of her vulva. Another patient was known as 'the queen of hysterics' and was one of his star acts (Charcot held public shows of his prowess over these women). Blanche was used to demonstrate 'hysterogenic zones' on the body that Charcot believed controlled attacks. Hustvedt's book melds science and religion, hypnotism and theatre, showing how an illness that no longer exists once captured the public imagination. Better still, she tells the story of the women who, unfortunately, became medical celebrities.